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Representations of tonsure in the Book of Kells

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Four Insular documents from the seventh and eighth centuries show that a major controversy took place amongst the Insular churches regarding the shape of the tonsure worn by clerics. Those who followed the customs of the Roman church wore a coronal tonsures, oval or circular in plan, while those belonging to some earlier Irish and British churches wore a delta tonsure, triangular in plan. This paper critically examines six figures in the Book of Kells proposed to have been illustrated with tonsures. Three of these at ff. 32v, 34r and 273r all show Jesus with the delta tonsure. The haloed figure above the second Canon table at f. 2v is likewise shown with the delta tonsure. On the other hand, the mounted figure at f. 255v is shown with a coronal tonsure and is explicitly coupled to the words ‘unum’ and ‘peccauerat’ of Luke 17:1 and 17:3 respectively. In Luke 17:1-3 Jesus censures all those who give cause for temptation to sin, saying it would be better that they were cast into the sea with a mill-stone about their neck. Consequently, by this graphic presentation of the coronal tonsure the compilers of Kells expressed their strong disapproval of it. A sixth figure at f. 182r proposed by James McIlwain in 2008 to be illustrated with the coronal tonsure is shown in fact to represent Pontius Pilate wearing an oval cap. Thus the five illustrations of tonsure in the Book of Kells represent a graphic polemic, exalting those who wore the delta tonsure, but directed against those who wore the Roman coronal tonsure.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: December 1, 2017

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  • As a leading journal in the field of Celtic Studies and published annually by the University of Wales Press, Studia Celtica represents the highest quality research within language, literature, history and archaeology. It is an internationally refereed journal that includes articles, short notes and book reviews. Contributions are received from Celtic experts around the world – from the USA, Australia, Scotland, Ireland and France. The lead editor, Professor Dafydd Johnston, is Director of the University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies.

    Mae Studia Celtica, a gyhoeddir yn flynyddol gan Wasg Prifysgol Cymru, yn gylchgrawn awdurdodol ym maes Astudiaethau Celtaidd. Cynrychiola ymchwil o'r radd flaenaf ym meysydd iaith, llenyddiaeth, hanes ac archaeoleg. Mae'n gyfnodolyn rhyngwladol sy'n cynnwys erthyglau, nodiadau byr ac adolygiadau. Derbynnir cyfraniadau wrth arbenigwyr Celtaidd ledled y byd – o Unol Daleithiau'r America, Awstralia, Yr Alban, Iwerddon a Ffrainc. Y prif olygydd, Yr Athro Dafydd Johnston, yw Cyfarwyddwr Canolfan Uwchefrydiau Cymreig a Cheltaidd Prifysgol Cymru.

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